A Murder of Ravens
I. The Raven
On the morning of April 25th, 1832, an idealistic young lieutenant from Georgia, but then fresh out of West Point, crossed the Arkansas River into Cherokee Land. He had expected wigwams on either side of a stream but was astonished to find as many log cabins on land in corn and beans and squash, a half dozen two story plantation homes with porticos – one with a balustrade – an enormous town hall towering above a row of shops, and a first and second Baptist church.
At the border a maiden convert, after first trying him in Spanish and then French, secured permission for him to enter and then returned to beating her black slave with a savagery that would have outraged any Georgian community. She had been puzzled by his request for The Raven, but, after speaking to her father, was able to direct the young man to a plain teepee.
Along the path to it, Indians and half-Scots looked up from their Cherokee Phoenix or Cherokee Gazette to nod "Good morning."
Standing outside the wigwam, the young soldier hesitated absurdly for a moment, not knowing where to knock, and then abruptly drew back the flap to step inside. The scene upon which he intruded was grotesquely original. As his eyes grew accustomed to the dark, he could make out, through the whiskey fumes and peyote haze, the image of a completely naked man well over six and a half feet tall lying between two Indian girls, the elder of whom, the young Georgian later wrote to his mother in disgust, was no more than twelve.
This was Sam Houston, the most recent governor-elect of Tennessee.
II. The Mission
Reading backwards, the logic of events culminating in Governor Houston's deplorable debauch can be traced to the crimes of the conquistadors. After their brutal excesses, the rulers of New Spain soberly faced the fact that there would never be enough Spanish immigrants to populate the vast territory their country claimed. The simplest way to supplement was to incorporate the native population with the help of the church.
The term the missionaries used for this process was called, significantly enough, reduction. The savages were reduced from proud infidels to humble followers of the Cross. Their tribal structure was destroyed, and a once independent people were reduced to minors in a provincial Spanish community. To persuade braves to do a squaw's work in the shadow of an alien religion took some doing, but the friars were, what is now, a lost breed of men. So brightly did their idealism burn that they managed to win wild warriors to Christianity and reduce them to a placid yeomanry.
And so expert had the Franciscans become at their craft that they allowed themselves only ten years with a given tribe before it was off to the next one up for reduction. How well the system worked can be seen at a glance at the great nations below the Rio Grande. The backbone of the population is native Indian blood. Reduction was well on its way above the Rio Grande as well in New Mexico, Arizona and California. And so it was with a confidence justified by experience that the Franciscans planted their first mission in Texas in 1693.
They were immediately chased far back into Mexico, but, once they had caught their breath, they were, by no means, discouraged. They were used to setbacks, and twenty-three years later they were back again, this time with a bigger garrison in case the Indians still didn't want to play ball.
The Indians still didn't want to play ball.
The Caddo of northeast Texas were nomads and well fed ones at that who had taken large numbers of French weapons and scalps too, for that matter. But that wasn't the problem. The Spanish were capable Indian fighters and easily defeated the Caddo in every engagement they could provoke. The problem was that they could provoke no more than one engagement. After that, they just couldn't catch them. They caught large numbers, but the body of the tribe escaped from their grasp. The ones they caught saw no harm in being baptized – they rather enjoyed that – but they wouldn't congregate, and that was that.
The cannibal Kawakawa along the Gulf and in the Valley did consent to congregate and were immediately rewarded with a lethal epidemic. That was enough for the survivors. They went back to man eating and successfully eluded the soldiers. Sometimes, however, the soldiers did not elude the Kawakawa. Thanksgiving Eve, 1730 the tribe dined well on four members of the presidio who thought it would be fun to catch a squaw.
Mission Refugio and Mission Rosario did have converts however. Six in fact, six between them, and these all died one winter.
Surprisingly the Apache welcomed the friars. They even provided safe escort for their mule trains. And then once the mission in their territory was well supplied, they promptly sacked it and murdered all the padres.
Things weren't going quite as expected in Texas.
But there was one bright prospect. To quote the Monsignor – there was one gleaming jewel in the forehead of this Texan toad – and that was Mission Valero at San Antonio. The Indians there were called Coahuiltecan, and this in itself bode well for Christendom and Spain since the Franciscans had already reduced Coah below the Rio Grande and in first contact with any new tribe reduced Indians were always used as stalking horses.
Following their usual gambit, the friars called a powwow. Gifts were distributed. Mission Indians told their unbaptised cousins how they dressed fancily, kept warm and ate well all year round. From time to time the impressive rituals of the Roman Church were performed. And these looked like Big Medicine to the Coah. A full belly in this life, salvation in the next, rich and novel gifts – it looked like a good deal from every angle.
The soldiers were there, of course, to keep the Coah in line, but for once in the entire blighted territory of Texas no force was necessary. The Coah fondled their gifts and, having never heard of paternalism, gave it not a thought. They flocked to the Cross in satisfying numbers.
The friars regarded this jewel with pride, and one another with satisfaction. But there was a flaw in this gleaming jewel, difficult to see, because the flaw was the jewel itself.
The only tribe to heed the call to the better life turned out to be the weakest and most worthless in all of Texas. Fray Morfi, the Franciscan historian who visited Valero described the mission Indians as "vile, lazy, stupid, cowardly." The native view is not recorded, but, on the other hand, Morfi had some rather nice things to say about the Comanche who had never given the friars anything but the back of their hand. The Comanche response to the Spanish incursion was simple, consistent: bloody homicidal assault.
This leads to a natural question: who in the world did the Comanche think they were dealing with? These were, after all, the toughest race of imperialists in the New World. Just to survive the boat trip in those days required the adventurers to be mean as snakes, and yet before the Spanish had even gotten their land legs back, they had destroyed the Aztec civilization which some historians claim was more advanced than their own – despite its being Stone Aged – against overwhelming odds. They had crushed the Incas and reduced the Mayans. Why could they not make short work of a few thousand blanket Indians in Texas? In Texas all the power of Spain was a failure. It was as big a failure as religion, and religion was a very big failure in Texas.
The Coah discovered that along with the spiritual ecstasy of belief came a chilling moral code. They were expected to work – men as well as women – and this sort of thing kept up all year round. Moreover, if they objected to anything that was particularly unpleasant, they were punished and made to do it into the bargain.
They ran away, in ones and twos, and then in droves. The friars led the soldiers after them. The ones they caught ran away again only to return genuinely contrite during the winter months or when the demented Kawakawa were after them – they were plumper now and therefore a delicacy.
But there were those who stayed put. There were those who did not run. And these gave their preceptors even less pleasure. They never acquired the faculty of working without direct supervision, and beyond a certain limited point they developed a passive resistance to self-improvement.
The friars ended up, as their reports plainly indicate, hating the guts of their spiritual children. But being the men they were, they held grimly on putting their faith in the next generation. But when the Coah could think of no other way of exasperating their friars, they turned toes up and died.
A balanced diet instead of the roots and vermin on which they had formerly subsisted, food year round instead of the alternating binge and famine, clean well-made adobe houses instead of wretched little hutches – all of these things could be reasonably expected to increase the span of human life. They did not.
The population steadily declined. The death rate enormously exceeded the birth rate which seems to stand in flat contradiction to circumstance. There was, after all, a sizeable, Spanish cavalry at Mission Valero. But a garrison cannot settle a country. It can only earnestly strive to populate it.
In 1750 when desperation apparently supervened upon the most burning idealism, when the friars no longer make mention of unwed men and women being locked up at curfew, it was found that the children of these sinful unions were even weaker and wilder than their full blooded cousins, without even the decaying tribal structure to keep them in line, and no paternal protection whatever – that in itself was a death sentence on the extreme frontier.
Things were bleak indeed in the state of Texas.
But the friars had one last card to play. After fifty years of the same repeated, relentless request, after fifty years of prayer and supplication, the Franciscans were at last granted full-blooded Spanish converts to settle Texas. The friars had specifically requested no lobos, no mestizos, no coyotes and, to quote one missive, "for the love of our Savior, no commanchero."
Some recent immigrants to the Canary Islands were euchred into moving onto Texas. Not one of them, God be praised, had a drop of Indian blood, and all were married couples with children. The friars beheld this new jewel with pride and one another with satisfaction.
But the Franciscans just couldn't have any luck in Texas.
The Islanders, although peasants and laborers back home, upon arriving at Valero, immediately adopted a we-came-over-on-the-Mayflower-attitude. Observing there was no one above them, they declared themselves to be the aristocrats of the land, the Brahmins of San Antonio. And befitting their exalted position they began to clamor for Indians servants, which the friars could ill afford to farm out. The mission was literally crumbling. Turn your back, the Coah would stop working.
The Islanders wouldn't even start. The Franciscans wrote bitter reports to Mexico describing the Islanders as "vile, lazy, stupid, cowardly." But it didn't end there. The newcomers were, the holy fathers learned, given to "crude animal pleasures, sinful excess, and wicked, carnal frolic."
All that was true, but, that aside, the Islanders had something to say themselves. They claimed that they had been aggressively recruited. They had been told that the sun baked near-desert of southwest Texas was so rich a soil that it would yield two crops a year without cultivation, that any mountain trail side would reveal gold and treasure, and they had been told that the native of Texas did so adore the White Man that he would not suffer this superior being to work and would labor all day long from love alone.
Since the Islanders hadn't expected to do any hard work, they quickly found a way to avoid it. Instead of showing the converts how civilized people conducted themselves, they went native living by hunting fishing and stealing from the mission.
In 1793 when Mission Valero was finally secularized, it was found that there were forty-three settled converts out of an original population of two thousand Coah. If the dead and missing are counted, then that is a conversion rate of just a hair over two per cent. The Coah rate of conversion was a perfect one hundred per cent. Every single Islander who came to Valero went native.
Things had turned out worse than anyone imagined in Texas.
What in the world had happened in Texas? In the past Spain had not let the Indians make up their own minds about whether or not they wanted to be reduced. In the past the Spanish had been willing to make things as tough as necessary. They didn't balk at partial extermination.
How had a few ragtag, blanket Indians in Texas managed to make their lives so miserable?
The reasons are interesting. The fact that the Texan natives were less advanced worked in their favor. They had built no cities that supplies could be cut off to. There was no fixed point to defend. The canon, which had wreaked such havoc against the Incas, only served to scatter the Texan tribes more widely. Moreover, Spain herself had graciously provided the Indians with a means of escape: the horse.
Nevertheless, all of this could just as easily be said about the natives of New Mexico, Arizona, and California who had all been efficiently reduced, plus or minus a minor Pueblo rebellion or two, and with little nonsense about it. There was, in fact, something very special about the Texan tribes. They could not be reduced. They could not be enslaved – obviously not, the Americans had had to look elsewhere.
Even the Coah in their passive-aggressive resistance preferred death before submission at Mission Valero – which was, although unrecognizable then by name, appearance or specific location, the Alamo.
III. The Double Traitor
The resistance by the Texan natives to The Spanish incursion would have been even more inspiring had they ever actually met the American with big plans for their territory, General James Wilkinson. John Randolph's assessment of this soldier of slime has been allowed to stand even by the most charitable of revisionists:
And yet it is hard not to have a sneaking admiration for this contemptible cur because, after all, he did show us, after all, how far a man could go with nothing to recommend him but cosmic brass.
A man can go very far. Long before the general realized he had a future as a filibuster, he had plotted to do violence against Mad Anthony Wayne, George Rogers Clark and George Washington himself. In a separate scam he conspired to sell Kentucky to Spain. In the course of this deal Wilkinson became a Spanish citizen. But he neither renounced that citizenship nor ceased to draw Spanish pay as a Spanish operative when he somehow managed to have himself appointed the Commander of the whole of the United States Army at the close of the eighteenth century.
In this office Wilkinson secretly ordered his protégé, Philip Nolan, to enter the Mexican province of Texas with a well-armed body of men ostensibly on a mustang raid. The party out-bluffed one Mexican patrol but didn't do so well with a larger one. Nolan was shot down, and the survivors of his detachment were imprisoned. One of these men, Philip Bean, managed to escape and later published a narrative about the misadventure, but this was long after it could have done General Wilkinson any political harm.
Unmoved by the fate of Nolan and his men, Wilkinson was soon looking for another cat's-paw when an even bigger thief intervened. Napoleon Bonaparte, violating a sworn agreement, sold Louisiana to the United States and sold it for a song. Spain at first refused to leave this rich territory but in time graciously consented to do so. However she was soon seething again after being told that Jefferson expected her to get out of Texas as well. It seems that in order to make the sale more attractive Napoleon had revived old French claims on Texas and thrown them into the kitty.
Jefferson was certainly under the impression that he had bought everything east of the Rio Grande, including not only Texas but the lion's share of New Mexico as well. Spain was unimpressed by Napoleon's generosity.
It is a truism that nations never act efficiently unless they are threatened. Spain, now with good cause for concern, came suddenly alive – throwing more colonists across the Rio Grande in a year's time than she had been able to in the previous century. New settlements were started. Garrisons were strengthened along the eastern border.
But, as it happened, Spain and France had never settled where Louisiana left off and Texas began. When Spain held both, it didn't really much matter. Even after the French took hold of Louisiana, they confined themselves largely to New Orleans and two other party towns. So there was no survey to fall back on. But one historical fact was clear. The Presidio of Los Adaes, near Natchitoches, Louisiana was the eastern most Spanish outpost in Texas. To re-occupy the site Spain sent troops across the Sabine River.
Coincidentally American officials determined on the very day of this invasion – although, of course, ignorant of it – that the boundary of Louisiana was this same Sabine River. A local U.S. commander pointed out that Spain's eastward thrust must be regarded as a territorial invasion, and the Spanish consented to withdraw, pending arbitration, to the west bank of the Sabine but not an inch farther.
Tensions were running high. The smell of war was in the air. The two superpowers of this hemisphere were barking at each other across a narrow river. Every so often a crazed young lieutenant would get off a lucky cannon shot and bring down a line of enemy cavalry on the opposite bank. Thousands of innocent lives hung in the balance.
It was at this delicate juncture our hero arrived.
Ignoring the fragile diplomatic situation, Wilkinson sent Lieutenant Zebulon Pike on an unauthorized mission into New Mexico and enlisted British interest in an invasion of Spanish holdings and, of course, he continued to excite new filibusters into Texas. After an emissary from Wilkinson powwowed with the Caddo, they suddenly grew restless and began scalping women in Nacogdoches. But he ordered no overt moves himself.
It is now clear that all this nationalistic intrigue was nothing more than a huge scheme for extortion. It worked. An alarmed Spain began paying General Wilkinson immense sums to help locate the insurgents, to inform on himself.
Whatever else he was, and he was many things, America's arch-ogre, Aaron Burr, was no such four-flusher. He took what he naively assumed to be Wilkinson's real strategy and "matured it." Traveling around the country, Burr began gathering an expeditionary force and the shipping necessary to carry it down the Mississippi. Wilkinson, Burr's trusted ally, would – and this was clearly understood – desert his post upon signal and join the Vice President in the venture.
Meanwhile the "finished scoundrel" had got himself into one of his periodic difficulties with the U.S. government. Skilled as he was at keeping down wind, the stench of his activities was so strong it reached the capitol, and there every nauseated, clear-eyed congressman was calling for his head.
The scales had at last fallen from the eyes of the Spanish as well who had finally realized that Wilkinson was not to be trusted and were doing their best to convince Washington of the man's long duplicity.
A lesser scoundrel would have ducked for cover. But not General James Wilkinson. The man came out of his corner firing in all directions at all those who were now on to him, scoring with every shot.
To Jefferson he reported that he was on a trail of a great conspiracy and that he had succeeded in identifying the guilty party. According to Wilkinson – and the accusation had no other support – Burr was not only planning to invade Mexico but to detach from the Union Kentucky, Tennessee and the whole of the Louisiana Purchase. Wilkinson asked the U.S. President for large sums he had personally spent to unearth the plot. Naturally enough, the unmitigated swine cashed in.
To Spain the General reported the same thing, less the part that he felt could be of no interest to that country. For this proof of loyalty he demanded a reward, which was duly forwarded.
Next in his capacity as Commander of the U.S. Army he rushed to the point where American and Spanish troops were barking at each other across the Sabine. Conferring with the Spanish commander, he made a treaty calling for a stretch of Neutral Ground as a buffer between the two countries.
Since the proposed Neutral Ground was all on the American side of the river, Spain rushed to sign. Now Wilkinson had absolutely no authority to conclude such a treaty, but his luck held. The administration didn't want war and accepted the treaty as a done deal.
But the man wasn't quite finished. To prevent Burr from telling whose idea the whole mess was in the first place, he had his partner arrested and preferred charges of treason. The star witness for the prosecution was the only witness for the prosecution: General James Wilkinson. With his new prestige as a diplomat and patriot, the general was able to run one scam after another all the way back east.
In Washington Wilkinson was hailed all around for bringing peace in our time. A parade was organized in his honor culminating on the Capitol steps with a release of doves, exaltations of doves – an interesting end to a trail of slime and violence. And the most violent Wilkinson legacy was the Neutral Ground.
IV. The Filibusters
The Neutral Ground was the nursery of the first infant nation of Texas. And like any infant, it was raucous, messy, illiterate, and possessed with animal spirits. This anyone could have deduced.
Since the Neutral Ground was an area over which neither Spain nor the United States had jurisdiction, there promptly went men who had not much use for jurisdiction. In fact the most savage group of bandits ever to terrorize North America were the "Grounders." But no one could accuse these gentlemen of prejudice. They preyed without discrimination on settlers on both sides of their domain, not to mention the smugglers moving between them.
For Mexico this was no more than a minor distraction. She had bigger worries. An outlaw cleric, Father Hildago, infected with liberal ideas, had incited His Most Catholic Majesty's subjects to rebellion against the Spanish crown. And in 1810 civil war reached Texas then, of course, the northern most province of Mexico. The commander of the Mexican garrison at the Alamo declared for liberty, but he was at once shot in the stomach. The local leaders of the revolt were also lined up and shot. And after giving them a run for their money, Hildago was caught and shot by the royalists as well. But the flames this simple cleric fanned were not so easily banked. And the nature of the crisis soon clarified. There seemed to be more rebels than bullets. Mexico was therefore, at that point, completely preoccupied procuring armaments.
Having no rebel padre to distract it, the U.S. government took the bad men in the Neutral Ground rather more seriously, especially since they were, after all, on their side of the Sabine. And a punitive force under the command of Lieutenant Augustus Magee was charged by Washington with the breaking up the bandit gangs. Magee completed his detail efficiently. He caught all the bad guys and gave them all good floggings.
So far fine, but it seemed to Magee that he wasn't being promoted nearly so quickly as he should. So he declared himself a colonel and promptly enlisted under his rogue banner all the criminals who had survived his beatings. Having observed that it was safer to be on his side than their own, they joined in squads.
Magee was savvy enough to see that he couldn't attract the support of the local Mexicans as an invader of their country. To draw in the locals he enlisted a fugitive republican, Bernado Guttierez, in the cause and made him a nominal commander. Some Americans Magee passed along the way, who regarded any criminal assault upon Spain as an act of piety, came as well. This mixed crew, including a band of man-eating Karankawa, were the Founding Fathers of the first State of Texas.
And against every expert prediction they crushed the Spanish garrison at Nacogdoches and went on to score victory after victory until fate dealt Magee a wild card of love. A cannibal and a thief had formed an improbable attachment which they believed Magee intended to end. The desperate pair murdered the Colonel as he slept. The now leaderless invading force was soon driven back by royalists at Labahia (later Goliad, an anagram of Hildago) until command by necessity passed to one Colonel Kemper who carried the day and the year as well, for that matter.
Kemper's repeated triumphs inspired many Mexicans with a longing for liberty who now came flocking to a good thing. Thus re-enforced Kemper successfully laid siege to the Mission at Bexar, the Alamo, and went on to do the impossible – to drive all Spanish forces from the Spanish province of Texas.
Things were looking rosy indeed until the nominal commander, Guttierez, so indifferently appointed by the slain Magee, decided to settle a grudge. Kemper had given the Spanish Governor of Texas and the other royalist officers generous terms to surrender, but that wasn't the way Mexican revolutions were fought – not by a long shot. Guttierez and his colleagues marched all their celebrity prisoners a few miles from Bexar and ceremonially cut their throats.
The Americans – such of them who weren't cutthroats themselves – left in disgust. Kemper himself washed his hands of the lot of them and left for home. Command then passed to Colonel Henry Perry. Guttierez was replaced by Alvarez de Toledo who, to the astonishment of everyone, proved every bit as cruelly stupid as his predecessor. The Mexican detachment in their innocence had supposed they had plumped the depths.
In time Mexico City sent yet another royalist vanguard to stand before the rebels. Toledo, sure of his martial genius, tried to seize command. But this was gall and wormwood to freewheeling frontiersmen. The Americans weren't about to suffer a figurehead's orders, and, more in the spirit of independence than anything else, attacked on their own. The Spanish retreated, and the Americans pursued in howling triumph – without a clue that they had just been sucked into enfilade. The royalist commander was none other than the aging General Arredondo, the most ruthless Hell's Angel in Christendom. The Americans who didn't perish in the trap were hunted down and formally executed, and the Indians and Mexicans who had refused to fight were shot for sport.
Colonel Perry, the American commander, may have been the only American to escape, but the man just couldn't accept the grace of Providence. In Galveston in 1816 he collected a band of liberal zealots, pirates of the Gulf, aids to Bolivar and the usual ruffians and then attacked Mexico by sea. The royalists who apprehended them didn't just kill them. They tortured them first, but they didn't just torture them – it was more in the spirit of a party.
The Spanish weren’t playing games.
In fact Arrendondo was just getting started. Royalists all over the world have had their own methods for putting down, once and for all, revolts against a liege lord. Arrendondo had his own interesting spin. He didn't just kill the rebels in Nacogdoches, he killed their families – and, of course, all those who sheltered them. But then, following a sublime inspiration received only by true visionaries, he killed Nacogdoches.
Carthage got a better deal from Rome.
So much for that rebellion. But a separate thorn in Spain's side, operating out of Galveston, was the celebrated pirate, Jean Lafitte. He and his band of brigands had held a grip on Texas longer than any of the American filibusters managed to. Consequently, when James Long, a self appointed general, also tried to detach Texas, he turned to Lafitte for assistance.
At this point the record becomes truly amazing. The bizarre truth was that, while Lafitte was preying almost at will on Spanish shipping, the officialdom of Mexico was also using him as a paid spy. The administrators there had taken a long view and decided that since Lafitte was going to raid them, come what may, they might as well make what use of him they could. Lafitte earned his pay and betrayed Long without missing a beat.
Long's command was rounded up and put to death, but Long, like Perry, was luckier than his men, and also like Perry he could not accept good fortune. Long immediately tried again, but on this occasion they got him. But by the time he was transported to Mexico City, tried and scheduled for execution, the Mexican rebels, rising again from the ashes, had at last thrown off Spanish rule. But Long just wouldn't let it go, and, at long last, finally succeeded in getting himself shot by the very rebels who had been sympathetic to his cause.
On the day of Mexican succession Texas had only three thousand citizens. With Nacodoches in ashes there were only two settlements left, Labahia and San Fenando de Bexar, now San Antonio. There was no profitable development, and those who survived had gone native.
In the struggle for independence Mexico had drained her blood and treasure, and now civil war between two rival factions of Free Masons, of all things, was now imminent. Consequently, there were no troops to spare to patrol the borders of the Indian Territories in Texas. As a result, the Indian problem had grown serious. The Comanche, in particular, were the most troubling. These bad tempered aborigines had grown so powerful they had managed to drive the Apache off – something that Spain with all her machines of war had not succeeded in doing.
And whenever they felt like it, in fact, they took over Bexar, and the Mexican garrison there was expected to watch their mounts. As the sons of conquistadors held the horses of the savages who were disgracing their women at will, even greater humiliations were being suffered by the Mexico in the north.
The new government was helpless to hinder alien Indians from immigrating to Texas in droves. The Caddo were roaming the plains now as well as the eastern marshes, a region about the size of France. To make matters even worse, tens of thousands of Cherokee crossed into Texas fleeing the U.S. government. And they went altogether unchallenged in their domination of the Texan northeast. The Goth was at the gate.
V. A Raven Rising
The Cherokee, as a matter of fact, were everywhere. Their nation stretched from Georgia to Arkansas, and thanks to Sequoia, perhaps the greatest genius ever, his people were already a more literate community than the brawling whites at their borders.
One of these brawlers was the young Sam Houston, who in 1817 was told by his family he would have to clerk in a store. Houston didn't hesitate for a moment. He picked up his copy of Homer and swam the Little Tennessee River to Cherokee Land, and there, for the next three years, he lived as a native, complete with costume or lack of it, until everything he cared about was threatened: the buffalo hunts with those whom he described as "the gentle red children of the forest," the half-Scots whom he worshipped from a distance: the Bowl, Mush, Little John, Sequoia, his indulgent red mothers – wives to his adopted father – Chief Oleeteeka, He-Who-Puts-the-Drum-Away, the great Cherokee pacifist – everything he cared about – and, oh yes, his white family – was threatened by an unholy alliance between the evil British Empire and the brave and terrible Creek nation. His duty was clear. At nineteen he enlisted under General Andrew Jackson as a common soldier to be severely wounded at the Battle of Horseshoe. But somehow, against the best medical opinion of the day, Houston survived, and later when President Jackson brought his wild men across the mountains to the White House, he did not forget one he left behind. Jackson signaled back to the Tennessee machine, and Houston was elected governor.
At that time Houston had both the job and the woman he wanted. But unfortunately Mrs. Eliza Houston did not have the man she wanted, and this created a scandal upon which his enemies fell with glee. It is interesting that after Houston resigned he returned to the Cherokees. He had been given a fine poetic Indian name, but the squaws he took to his wigwam must have provided poor solace because as the years passed he became known informally as Big Drunk. And it was this Sam Houston that so appalled the young Georgian at the beginning of this account.
But somehow the letter from Jackson that the lieutenant brought revived him, and, within just a few months, Houston was back in the center of white society, strolling down Pennsylvania Avenue, cane in hand, although still in his moccasins, buckskin vest and Cherokee blouse, buffalo robes and martial feathers – a sight that one passing Congressman Stanberry imprudently found ludicrous.
Big Drunk raised his hickory cane to rain down a hail of blows: one, two, three – each one a solid winner. But Houston's left arm still held two musket balls from the Creek campaign, and Stanberry was able to break free to run for his life, sprinting down Pennsylvania Avenue in record time from a standing start. But The Raven, despite an arrowhead still in his left thigh, overtook him, knocked him down, and then according the testimony later given by a passerby:
Indeed, a horizontal politician presented a host of new targets on which to inflict further punishment: the sides, the thighs, the knees, the shins – especially the shins – and then somehow Houston with his bad arm lifted the man a foot off the ground and struck him elsewhere with ladies present.
For the second time Houston had outraged the early nineteenth century ideal of feminine purity, and it was with this cry that he was greeted when he was led before an open session of the House of Representatives to be tried and convicted for his crime, the only man in history to earn this distinction. Houston was fined several times his net worth and then socially ostracized. But Old Hickory with his remarkable capacity for liking and hating stood by him, and after a Presidential conference we do not know the particulars of, Houston made his way to the only place on earth where a public assault against a public official was regarded as a civic virtue: the northern most province of Mexico, Texas.
Standing on a bank of the border river between Louisiana and Texas, Houston knelt to ask the forgiveness of the god of his red father, their Holy Blessed Savior, Jesus Christ, to pray that his Texan adventure prove redemptive.
When he stood, he saw a murder of ravens circling the Sabine.
The Mexicans had no objection to his crossing. Even during Spanish rule American immigrants were permitted in to form a buffer against those accursed, irreducible tribes. But there were two strings. All settlers had to become Spanish subjects and convert to Roman Catholicism.
Spain had allowed newcomers in partly out of self interest and partly because relations with the U.S. were much improved. In 1819 Spain ceded Florida to the U.S. on the condition that the American government would surrender all claims to Texas.
The new Mexican government was nowhere near so naive. The Mexican authorities knew the frontiersmen too well to leave them on their own. Empresarios or land grants were allotted by the new republic to Americans, so that if any American brought in someone of bad character then he must forfeit the grant.
The North Americans, as the Mexicans called them, had a very hard time at first, but they were hard workers and fierce fighters. They subdued the wilderness and taught the Indians caution. But the attempt to control these rough and tumble immigrants by way of empresarios was wasted. The Mexicans came in time to understand that the settlers possessed an identity of their own other than sacrifice pieces in Indian skirmishes. But they had realized a day late that they were nursing a cuckoo in the nest.
VI. Roaring Drunk
A few months after Houston had crossed the Sabine he was elected a delegate to the rebel convention. And within a year he was appointed the supreme commander of the Texan resistance. And resistance was on every Texan mind at that moment.
Santa Anna, the President of Mexico, after wadding up the liberal constitution of 1824, had just marched against a southern province which had refused to hand over its militia. After crushing the opposition, El Presidente sat back and watched as his men attacked the civilian population for three days with unrestrained rapine. Then Santa Anna looked north to the rebel province of Texas infested with American squatters, each one of whom he yearned to punish.
The American that the President of Mexico was most anxious to hang was the man that Sam Houston had chosen to evaluate the mission at Bexar, the Alamo at San Antonio, to determine if it should be held or blown up – Colonel James Bowie, formerly of Louisiana, and the wearer of the knife that bears his name.
The fame of this weapon, standard equipment for the men of the Alamo, can be traced to a duel fought on a sandbar in the Mississippi to confuse the jurisdiction of authorities. All would have gone well had one of the contestants just nicked the other. But, as it happened, both men missed, quickly composed their differences, and then hastily left the field of honor in the same boat.
But the spectators they left behind would have none of it. They began to quarrel over which man was the greater coward. Debate was spirited, blows were exchanged. And there followed a melee in which everyone joined in including the seconds, a priest and the attendant surgeons. Six men were killed outright and sixteen wounded, among whom was Colonel James Bowie, who was shot in the leg early on in the engagement, going down on one knee. An old enemy, Major Norris Wright, rushed forward with his cane sword to press home his advantage. Bowie drew his own sword, which had been whittled down to an eight and a half inch blade in a duel fought the preceding day, and rammed it home.
"Damn you, Bowie," cried Major Norris Wright. "You've killed me with that ghastly thing! What in Christ's name is it?"
The colonel had not allowed himself time to explain. Nor was there time to explain to three desperadoes who jumped him at once sometime later, nor to Bloody Sturdivant, a river boat gambler of legendary cruelty, nor to Jean Lafitte, the Son of the Pirate of the Gulf.
Bowie killed many lesser luminaries as well. It is documented that he fought at least a dozen Creoles to the death in New Orleans, twice that number of Mexican soldiers in Texas and a large but finite number of cannibal Karankawa. As a patriot Bowie preferred to maim Americans. And as a result of these successful encounters Bowie developed an almost mystical trust in his blade. And he needed something because he found himself as often in an Indian village as he did in a French drawing room. And the remarkable reason that Bowie was able to move so easily among cultures was his mother.
His father had picked her out of an exclusive, blue-blooded Savannah finishing school and then transplanted this hothouse orchid to the wild frontier of Tennessee and later to the even wilder one of Louisiana.
He was a good picker.
When Bowie senior was jailed for shooting two Choctaw who had carried off his boy, Mrs. Bowie shot two jailers who had carried off her man. The newly reunited couple quickly repaired to Catahoula Parish near where Opelousas stands today, and there young Bowie had a boyhood unusual for the extreme frontier.
His mother taught him classical literature, Greek and Latin. With her assistance he picked up French and Spanish, and was later to add on his own Cherokee, Comanche, Apache.
Bowie loved languages. And he loved to kill the men who spoke them. But it is interesting that, except in fighting in self defense, Bowie never fought on his own behalf. He never fought except to avenge some helpless or injured third party. He never fought unless his sense of propriety, granted a touchy one, was outraged.
Bowie was the last human being on earth anyone would have expected to have a sense of propriety. As a young man his playmates were Cajuns, French children gone native, every bit as wild as Indians. And with them he found diversions from his studies. One game was called the backing of alligators. The object was to steal into the Cyprus swamp, skin up a tree and then leap onto the back of one of these great reptiles and wrestle it to exhaustion. The winner was defined to be the survivor with the larger prize and was, as often as not, the animal. The nine year old Bowie was a reputed expert.
A more practical activity was the downing of wild steers which abounded wherever Spain had placed her settlements. A rider would use a lance to trip one of these great brutes and then, before it had time to recover, spring off, rush forward and cut its throat. It must be remembered that these were longhorns, cousins to the terrible ring bulls toughened by wilderness living.
All surviving residents of the extreme frontier were so toughened. Like most young men in the area, Bowie was expected to be self dependent shortly after he could drag a rifle into the forest. With the furs he collected there he started a saw mill and then leveraged these profits into a sugar plantation.
But a wandering band of Cherokees stole some of his contraband slaves, and in tracking them Bowie got his first look at the interior of Texas. He lost their trail in the dessert, but while he was there he heard rumors of silver mines. In order to have a free hand at exploration, he joined the Apaches.
He joined the Apaches.
And yet he became so popular he was adopted into the tribe.
But love and war interfered with Bowie's prospecting. At this stage Bowie was in his late thirties and unmarried, unusual for the extreme frontier, but he saw what he wanted on a trip into Bexar in one Seniorita Verimendi. After accepting Roman Catholicism, Bowie sweated out the protracted courtship upon which Spanish custom insisted, and then at last settled down.
But Mrs. Bowie died under circumstances that must have caused her husband extreme anguish. The year was 1835 and cholera vectors were crawling across the West, and it was feared that Bexar would be hit hard. At her husband's insistence, Mrs. Bowie retired to a southern estate, but there the plague found her and an infant boy and girl. Bowie went immediately insane with grief and in no time was known to the Apache as Roaring Drunk.
But drunk he defeated the Mexicans at the Battle of Concepcion against odds of two to one, and drunk he drove them from the Alamo, and drunk he alone among all the Texan rebels devised a strategy upon which the salvation of Texas would depend.
Knowing that Santa Anna would have to cross desolate territory from which foraging would be impossible, Bowie concluded that the general's supply lines would have to stretch all the way back to Mexico City. Being so long they would necessarily be thin enough to be easily cut, and consequently no fort on Santa Anna's march to the Sabine could be bypassed. And thus the Alamo must be held at all costs. And so it was here that Bowie now stood with a hand full of regulars and a few volunteers, who, embittered by the non-arrival of a promised payment, had sold their guns for drinking money.
But even the sole command of this pathetic little garrison was taken from him by the new Texan government, or at least by one of them. The rebels, who had gone for an interminable interval with no government, now found themselves taking orders from two. In fact the newly elected President, Henry Smith, had just shot two delegates who tried to take away his seal, and it was he who chose a young fireball by the name of William or Buck Travis as co-commander of the Alamo, a lawyer, a lawyer whose only military experience had been the tarring and feathering of a dozen Mexican soldiers who thought it would be fun to gang rape a settler's wife. But even while applying this simple object lesson, Travis had managed to get himself arrested, although he was later to be released in a prisoner exchange.
But despite the fact that Travis had no point of comparison, he was appalled by what he found at the Alamo. Those designated as regulars were desperadoes who had been stranded there, and those described as volunteers were holding formations at the cantina in imitation of their legendary leader, who was drunk in the morning, drunk at noon, and drunk at night.
Travis wrote letter after letter to Washington, Texas, the seat of the new government, complaining of the moral failings of his command, but the spirit of manana is seductive, and when Bowie staggered in one evening to report that Mexican scouts, their armor gleaming in the twilight, had been spotted on the southern horizon, he found his upright, censorious co-commander consorting with common whores. Far from reacting with alarm, Travis replied irritably that Bowie should go away and not bother him while he was entertaining attractive young ladies. Bowie persisted. Travis resisted until Bowie shook his co-commander silly. And yet when the virtuous counselor finally did get his pants back on, activity became furious.
The houses of refugees were ransacked for weapons. Abandoned cattle were driven into the fort. An earthwork was thrown up to emplace cannon. Helping in the horrific task of setting one of these pieces by hand, Bowie suffered a fall. Before he could throw off the shock, he commenced a fever and the next day he could hardly stand. The date was February 23rd, 1836, the day that the destiny of Buck Travis became manifest.
In his first real military command of no more than one hundred and fifty fighting men, William Travis, attorney at law, looked out over the west wall of the Alamo to see four thousand professional soldiers, agents of the super power of Mexico, led by General Santa Anna, also known to the world as the Napoleon of the West.
The Napoleon of the West sent in an envoy under flag, and Travis stepped out to hear what the enemy had to say. He demanded unconditional surrender or the entire garrison would be put to the sword. Travis replied that they weren't going to surrender with or without conditions, thank you very much. And when these spurned riders returned to their general's tent, the siege was officially on, and a Mexican showed himself within rifle range at his peril – although it took the Mexicans a little while to work out exactly what effective rifle range was to an American frontiersman. Sergeant Juan Garcia, an excellent cook and favorite aid to Santa Anna, stepped into the open at what he conceived to be a safe distance and was promptly picked off. First blood of the engagement went to Colonel David Crockett of Tennessee.
Enraged, Santa Anna ordered the raising of a second flag from the highest point in Bexar, the tower of the San Fernando Cathedral, a blood red banner, a sign that no quarter would be given to the men of the Alamo.
Santa Anna also ordered a cannonading that lasted for twenty four hours. On the 24th, a regiment of cavalry and three more battalions showed up, and Santa Anna felt confident enough to make his first gesture to the east bank of the river. Crossing the river to the south a detachment of three hundred soldiers came up under the cover of buildings until they reached the open a hundred yards away – one hundred yards away. This was like drinks on the house to the Texan riflemen on the wall who shot several dozen before the Mexicans decided it might be a bad idea to seat a battery in daylight.
That night the Texans stole out close enough to pot their game in the dark, but they did not kill nearly enough, and by daylight there was a battery seated three hundred yards to the south of the Alamo.
Two days later, Santa Anna held three sides from which he commenced a shower of bombs, making sleep impossible. After such a long trick on guard, the men in the fort looked eastward with increasing impatience for the help they hoped would come.
None came. But what did arrive the next day was a third enemy column. Santa Anna could now afford a few losses. Two days later, nine batteries were trained on the fort, but the price El Presidente paid for this was high. There was, of course, the daily bag of his troops, but every so often these accursed Texans, with their own cannon, a weapon which they were unskilled, would get off a lucky shot and bring down a line of cavalry that stood on the east horizon to intercept a rescue party.
Forty eight hours from this point the Mexicans were within musket range. Thus murderously close, the batteries brought about what Santa Anna had been trying to accomplish for eleven days, a sizeable breech in the plaza's north wall.
Then Santa Anna did something of which only a very subtle general could have been capable. He did nothing for four hours. The men of the Alamo, who had met every test exacted by danger and fatigue, could have stood anything. A barrage laying down a carpet for the attack would have been met as just one more test on their fortitude. But peace and rest dissolved them. They slept. After dark, Mexican scouts crept forward to cut the throats of the lookouts Travis had stationed outside the fort. Not one of them lived to give a peep of warning.
At first light, Santa Anna ordered the sounding of the deguello. The word means "assassin," and dates back to the savage wars between the Spanish and Moors. To the Mexicans, aware of its tradition, it was an elixir inspiring frenzied brutality, a call to butcher without discrimination. With cheers for Santa Anna they attacked.
The Texans were very nearly caught napping in the literal sense, but Travis had somehow managed to stay awake and gave out the alarm. A few minutes warning was all they needed. Their weapons, of course, had been loaded before they started to take it easy.
The siege ladders were never planted that first time. In fact the Mexicans were lucky to be able to carry them away. Only the south column actually reached the wall it was headed for, while the east and west were wavering, and the north was blasted back. The south, seeing itself left alone, gave up too, and a second cannon volley turned the wavering into a rout. The carnage was terrible as the cheers for Santa Anna changed to less articulate and more meaningful cries of sheer terror. Some of the Mexicans actually died from bayonet wounds they received from behind as their faster comrade sought to clear a path to safety.
As a result, officer casualties were particularly heavy. General Fransico Ducre, although severely wounded, courageously stood and tried to rally his command, but was trampled to death by his own men.
But the Mexicans were soldiers and very, very brave ones. They had to have been for their officers to have been able to talk them up again to another attack.
Again the charge was sounded, and again the deguello beat the air with its cry for murder. As before the south column made the best showing, this time actually throwing its siege ladders up against the wall. Mexicans swarmed up them to gain a foothold at the top, but rifle butts and Bowie knives forced them off, and no one followed the first hardy few.
As it happened, in retreating this time, the east column swerved left, and the west column swerved right. Some of the officers to the north were opportunists enough to weld all three fleeing forces into a single body and again they came like locust.
On Travis's order his men at the north and those who had rushed to the north waited until the Mexicans were on the wall and then shot them with derringers, pistols, double pistols, horse pistols, and a six pounder filled with grapeshot broke the Mexican line, clearing a horrible swath of blood and bone. Retreat was even more frenzied this time as the riflemen reached for their flintlocks and black powder weapons. This was a leading shot at a fleeing target, but fifty Mexicans went down tripping those behind them allowing some of the swifter defenders on the wall to reload and get off a final insult.
But El Presidente, sitting morosely in his tent in a cold rage, was still not ready to call it quits. He had wasted eleven days on this pathetic little Franciscan mission that had no right to be called a fort at all, and every day was money in the bank for Texas.
Four hours later he ordered an attack from all four directions with everything he had.
To the north the frontiersmen made hash out of the front ranks. The Mexicans died by squads, but the force was too great and the impetus was not weakened, and those who lived found themselves pushed through the breech, for the first time inside the walls of the Alamo. The Texan Spartans guarding the breech killed them as fast as they appeared, but meanwhile they were coming over the walls.
Again it was rifle butts and Bowie knives against bayonets, but there were too many, and scores were already dropping down into the plaza. Those guarding the breech, finding themselves attacked from behind, had to give way, and, to use the expressive phrase of Joe, Travis's black body servant, the Mexicans poured into the fort like sheep.
The Alamo had been taken, but the bitterest phase of the struggle had yet to be fought. The fury of the combat did not abate until the last man was killed. And this took some doing even before the plaza was cleared. Most of the living defenders found a place to put their backs against. After emptying their weapons, they fought hand to hand. And there they ripped open bellies with Bowie knives even as bayonets entered their bodies. And soon there were only the corpses of frontiersmen lying in the open.
But there was still a small group of Texans on the east wall who managed to swing round a thirteen pounder that had played little part in the siege, and fire into the crowd of enemy soldiers below. Before the Mexicans even knew what had hit them, the Texans had reloaded and done it again, but for the last time. The cannoneers were then felled by a fusillade of musket fire.
Meanwhile the Texans inside the barracks were dropping Mexicans as fast as they could fire and reload through the loopholes. There were five subdivisions of the long barracks. There were four quarters in the barracks and four outbuildings against the east wall of the plaza. All told, thirteen doors had to be battered in with the price for admission: death for the first to enter, and then it was fighting hand to hand with odds of ten and twenty to one.
Nevertheless, there was still a small group of Texans on the second floor of the long barracks who were defying seizure from behind an earthwork. They could just fire and reload too quickly. The Mexicans ingeniously solved this problem by dragging in one of the captured cannon and blowing the cornered men to pieces.
Next came the inner plaza. It was here that Crockett and two of his Tennesseans were killed. The difficulty in completing this detail can be precisely calibrated. The three were found in a heap with seventeen dead enemy soldiers.
But there was still a final group of Texans on the south wall who managed to swing round a six pounder and fire grapeshot into the troopers who were preparing to storm the chapel doors. But one by one these gunners were shot down.
Even after the last man was bayoneted in the chapel, the siege was still not over. Someone noticed that the baptistery was locked. It was here that Roaring Drunk had been taken. He was burning up with pneumonia, and his eyes were glazed with fever, but he could still use his weapons. He shot two enemy soldiers and then had to abide their hate.
But the Mexicans were more frenzied than ever. They had beaten futilely against the walls for almost a fortnight. And having seen so many of their brave comrades fall beside them and urged on by the murderous deguello, they were, according to the admission of their own officers, amok. Bowie's body was stripped and mutilated and tossed on bayonets. After an interval it was burned and thrown into a common grave.
Not one of the men of the Alamo lived to learn that the new Texan government had at last formally declared independence.
Mrs. Almiram Dickenson, the wife of one of the men of the fort, was rescued from the chapel by a gallant Mexican officer and given his horse. With a husband dead on the wall, a baby at her breast, and a musket ball in her leg, Mrs. Dickenson had all there was in the world to worry about. But somehow, after a two day ride, part of it through hostile Indian territory, she made it to Gonzales, thirty miles to the north, where Houston, acting on his own initiative, had just arrived with five hundred volunteers. Panic took both the town and this makeshift army after hearing Mrs. Dickenson's story. Thirty women of Gonzales learned that they were widows. But Houston, by the sheer force of his personality, managed to calm them – at least until word came that the cavalries of Doctor Grant and Colonel Johnson had also been wiped out.
Texas shuddered and fled. After hearing no word from Colonel Fannin, his de-facto replacement as the supreme commander of the Texan forces, Houston decided to fall back and escort the displaced. Within just a few weeks there were thousands of refugees strung up and down the Colorado River desperate to get across at the ferry. When the last of these was finally on the east bank, the refugees halted as a body and waited for the victory they hoped would end their flight.
But Houston, after still hearing no word from Colonel Fannin, crossed as well to the stunned bewilderment of the refugees. The flight of the entire population now became a desperate plunge for Louisiana.
Learning of these horrors, half the Texan delegates fled. The other half were drunk at their desks – or, at least, almost all the other half. A spindly little Baptist teetotaler called Burchett declared himself to be the new president and actually became so, by default rather than by acclaim.
His first official act was to move the seat of the new capitol from Washington, Texas, to Harrisburg, a city by chance on the path of his retreat to the port of Galveston. He would certainly have moved it again to Galveston, and then perhaps again into the Bay, had someone not delayed his flight by stealing his horse.
Houston himself was also in retreat as well with that mutinous part of his army that had not deserted. With each day he marched east, Santa Ana was able to burn more of his men's homes – at least he was able to until it began to rain, and rain, and rain, and rain so heavily for four days that the large wagons hauling Houston's cannon had to be abandoned to the Texan gumbo.
On reaching the plain of San Jacinta, Houston received the paralyzing intelligence that Colonel Fannin had surrendered to Santa Ana on honorable terms after an inconclusive engagement, and then he and his five hundred men had been lined up like so many chickens on market day and butchered.
To top it off, reliable word came that the northern tribes, with no troops to patrol their borders, had grown restive and were again scalping women in Nacogdoches. A remarkably large number of Houston's men claimed to be from that little row of shanties. Houston, Gideon-like, let them all go. This chivalrous band road north until it was out of sight and then beat it for the Sabine.
Nor had Houston any brave young men to command. They had found a refugee camp filled with pretty girls where, by the light of the campfires, they had been picked off by Texan Tories.
Two lieutenants Houston had ordered to escort a blind woman and her six children to Louisiana came across the bodies of Caddo and Karankawa who had quarreled over whether the straggling refugees should be enslaved or eaten. Even the U.S. border troops were deserting.
But Houston responded to all of this by falling asleep. Afraid of having his throat slit, he had not slept for three days. But before he started to take it easy, he secretly ordered his scout, Deaf Smith, to cut Vince's bridge, their only prayer of escape. He also ordered a grave dug for the first of his mutineers to beat for volunteers.
When Houston opened his eyes twelve hours later, he saw a raven circling above, his hunting animal. Santa Ana had been spotted as well. To avoid giving away his position, Houston ordered the breakfast fires pulled apart and then addressed his starving, furious mutinous mob. His speech is not precisely recorded, but apparently it was rather a good one.
We do know that in general he told them that Vince's bridge was down without bothering to mention precisely how, that there was therefore no word that day but fight, fight, fight, to trust in God and their Savior and to remember the Alamo. During this address Houston received the only good news since Santa Ana had crossed the Rio Grande. A cannon had been pulled across Vince's bridge shortly before it had been chopped down – no cannon ball, just a cannon.
Houston ordered the horses unshod and with grapeshot of hooves and broken shoes, he fired into the Mexican line. No practice shot, of course. No range shot. Just one shot upon which the destiny of Texas would depend.
Miraculously, a line of enemy cavalry went down. The infantry immediately responded with orange musket fire, and dozens of Houston's own foot soldiers went down, among whom was one, Robert Williamson, who was shot in the right leg which was soon numb from the knee down. Unconcerned he pulled the leg back and strapped on a piece of kindling and joined in the charge, a charge against the Napoleon of the West, the last thing anyone on either side expected.
It was almost a rout. Only one enemy colonel have the nerve to rally his men outside the panic zone in a copse of trees which the Texans, in their enthusiasm for at once being on the offensive, had entirely overlooked. But it was here that Three-Legged Willie, hobbling along, taking up the rear, performed what was certainly the most insane act of courage in history. Asking their pardon in English, Willie elbowed his way through the crowd of enemy soldiers until he reached their colonel, who was addressing them from a stump. Still annoyed about the leg, Willie drew his double pistol and shot the poor man through both knees. This was too much. The Mexicans threw down their weapons and ran for their lives – some of them pulling their own cavalrymen off their mounts and then riding flat out to their only hope of escape: Vince's Bridge, where they joined another one hundred and fifty other riders and men at the bottom of a fifty yard ravine.
Houston himself was on his third horse and had been shot through the shin. When the general was laid against a tree, it was found that his wound was dangerous. He was already showing signs of lockjaw. The camp barber, afraid of sawing the bad leg off in the field, promptly deserted. But he was the last to leave.
Defeat is an orphan, but victory has a thousand fathers. Politicians from East Texas, Louisiana, some who had scurried away as far as Mississippi were scampering back to San Jacinta to claim credit for the battle. Burchett was the first to arrive two days later, having sailed up the Brazos. He and his satellites swarmed over the camp confiscating horses, collecting souvenirs, gathering so much booty in fact, they claimed there was no room for Houston on the return voyage. But the captain of the vessel declined to leave without him.
In Galveston Burchett dismissed a surgeon who had volunteered his services and who flatly declared that unless the injured leg was immediately amputated Houston would die in torment. When Houston was lifted onto a dirty little schooner bound for New Orleans he fainted, and he was still unconscious two days later when his boat docked in the Crescent City.
But a week later he was back in Texas. The newly formed government was threatening to collapse before Indian attacks from without, even as Burchett and his cronies were robbing it blind from within. The U.S. declined to admit the new territory – the now recovered Congressmen Stanberry dismissing it contemptuously as Big Drunk's Big Ranch.
But Big Drunk succeeded Burchett, and at the conclusion of his six year term, the new Star currency was, at the cost of the General's personal fortune, almost as strong as the U.S. dollar.
Twenty five years after the battle of San Jacinta, Houston, penniless and alone, hobbled down the streets of Washington, Texas on both of his own legs – there had never been time to saw the bad one off. He stood on land that he had consecrated with his own blood, only to be denounced as a coward for his opposition to the entrance of Texas into the Confederacy.
There was no one to stand beside him now. His white brothers and sisters were dead. His favorite erotic nurses, Little Bear and Starlight, had died of measles on the forced march west. Colonel Jolly was scalped by Coahuiltecan. The Bowl died in the snow. Little John had died in poverty in Washington D.C. where he had pled unsuccessfully for the Cherokee cause. Sequoyah – perhaps the greatest genius ever – was dead now in a Mexican cave.
Both of his red mothers had died from tuberculosis on the same day. And his adoptive father, Chief Oleeteeka, had died years before, calling for his white son.
Mrs. Eliza Houston was dead, her seven children by a second marriage preceding her into the grave. Congressman Stanberry had died in his bed while President Jackson had slipped away for the second time in 1845 – his spirit had died twelve years before with Rachel.
Travis was dead, shot through the brain in the plaza's north wall, although somehow he had stood up again and run the man through who had killed him.
Joe, Travis's black servant, was spared as an involuntary combatant, or as a noncombatant – he did have a pistol. He was returned to the heirs of Travis, but there is a folklore account of him escaping to make an incredible trek to the free state of New York, where he was clubbed to death during an Irish riot.
Crockett was dead in the inner plaza after the doors to the chapel had been of necessity barred. Bowie was dead. Doctor Grant and Colonel Johnson were dead. All the buckskinned deities had fallen asleep.
Mrs. Dickenson and her baby were scalped by Comanche. The blind woman and her six children and one of her escorts had been carried off by Karankawa.
Three-Legged Willie rose to become the Supreme Court Justice of the Lone Star, but he had caught the gold bug in '49 and emigrated to California, where he was hanged by vigilantes.
Deaf Smith, Houston's colorful scout, had a good death in the year after San Jacinta with his Mexican wife and their children by his side.
But sometimes the injustice of fate is perfect. Santa Anna was captured after the Battle of San Jacinta and was willing to do anything to insure his personal freedom, which he purchased by renouncing his claim to the territory of Texas, a broken promise which caused the senseless Mexican American War. He died in luxury in a vast hacienda above Mexico City.
The odious President Burchette also died in luxury in his nineties in the arms of a mistress while Houston's only son, a good boy without vices, was shot at Manassas.
They were all gone now. They were all under the sea.
In the past when scorned by his own kind, Houston had found refuge among the Cherokee, not one of whom, he once wrote, had ever harmed or insulted him. But there were no Cherokee now.
The entire nation, which had once stretched from Georgia to Arkansas, had been put out of their homes, herded together at bayonet point and marched west. Their well appointed cabins had been distributed by lottery to whites too lazy to build their own. Their great town halls, which had once housed paid legislators, were cantinas now. And their beloved Baptist churches had been burned to the ground by ministers of their own faith who had denounced them as temples of pagans. They were all embers and ashes now.
All but one.
The First Cherokee Baptist Church of Georgia had been pulled apart plank by plank. The planks halved and then quartered and then broken and broken and broken again, to be carried on the backs of the women, all the way to Westville, Oklahoma where it was there reassembled, during attacks by rival tribes, and still stands today.
It was not the first time the Cherokee had worked a resurrection.
I recommend a beautifully written and well researched article, "A critical study of the Siege of the Alamo", in the Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Austin 1934 by Miss Amelia Williams. It deserves a more general circulation than a periodical. And I am also heavily indebted to the style and substance of the histories of Texas set down by D. Wooten, H. Yoakum, D. White, J. Southerland, E. Stiff, R. Potter, J. Morfi, J. Field, H. Bolton, J. Brown, J.M. Myers. The letters of Sam Houston at the University of Texas at Austin were also a colorful source.
by David Choate
... who is a professor of mathematics with no combat experience outside of the classroom or beyond the halls of academe. His poetry ("Easter Island", "Ode to an Academic", "Song of Sums") has been published in Amelia and Defenestration; his science fiction ("The Kid Catcher", "There Came Forth She Bears") in Starwind and Space & Time; and his "Christianity and Cannibalism", a philosophical essay, in Sophia. This is his first historical article.